Hey Principals, Prom Dress Codes Are A Waste Of Time

Back in 2004, my senior year, I wanted to wear a turquoise beaded Scala prom dress. I tried it on at a small dress shop in my hometown and immediately fell in love with it. The long column of beading made my 5’10” frame elegant instead of gawky. The color looked great with my white blonde hair and blue eyes, even though my mom wouldn’t let me go to the tanning bed with my friends. I thought that it was the perfect dress. So I snapped a picture and I took it to my RA.

See, I attended a boarding school my senior year of high school. And they decided to keep inappropriate prom attire out of the special occasion by making every girl get her prom dress approved by their resident adviser before she could put her ticket to prom. No, I’m not joking.

Our RA’s had to check to make sure that the dress wasn’t too low-cut, too short, have a high slit or a low back. There were all kinds of fun regulations. Unfortunately, my dress had a cut-out in the lower back of the dress. Cut-outs were forbidden. My beautiful dress was denied.

After crying a little, (what can I say, I was a teenage girl) and complaining to my mother, I headed back to the store to find another prom dress that I didn’t love nearly as much. It did the job and I had a nice time at prom, but I wasn’t nearly as thrilled with the purchase.

Back then, I though that my prom’s dress code was unfair and obnoxious. Now that I’m a mother of a young girl, I still find it obnoxious.

Apparently these prom dress codes didn’t graduate with me back in 2004. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that strict formal-wear guidelines are still alive and well, with some schools have 12 pages or more of rules and examples. The rules are all the same, forbidding low necklines and high hemlines. Schools might not be demanding to approve each dress, but they’re definitely enforcing dress codes at the door.

Even though it might seem like I’m all about revenge for that turquoise Scala dress, it’s not just my personal experience that makes me question the need for prom dress codes. Prom is a single night of the year. As my daughter calls it, prom is a “Cinderella ball for every girl, even if they aren’t princesses.” It’s a special occasion for self-expression and celebration.

For one night, can’t the adults back off a bit and allow their kids to enjoy the experience. Can we step back and let these soon-to-be adults and their parents make appropriate decisions for themselves? I realize that it’s putting a lot of faith and trust in the parents of teenagers, but maybe it’s time to ask what it’s really going to hurt.

We enforce dress codes with the understanding that some clothes distract children from learning in school. A low-cut top on your lab partner might lead to a chemistry mishap. I can understand wanting appropriate attire in the classroom. But whatever is being taught at prom, I promise that low-sling back on a dress isn’t going to interfere with anything.

The fact is, 12 pages of guidelines for a single night make a big deal out of clothes that will only be worn once. It creates stress and tension between schools and students where there doesn’t need to be any.

We tell teenagers “No” all the time. Maybe prom is one area where we could use less rules, not more.

(Photo: Wall Street Journal)

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  • kate

    totally agree with you! though i’d probably be a tad strict with my own daughters before they left the house, it isnt the schools place. and i feel really old you graduated in 2004 ;)

  • Cee

    Here is the thing, schools either have to do this all the way or not at all. By this I mean enforcing their school day dress code and prom or not enforcing one during school days and none at prom. I am a teacher and going to graduate school in subjects revolving education, which take me to many schools of many levels on a daily basis. All schools I go to seem to have a dress code that is not enforced…sheer shirts, stomachs showing, short shorts, high heels are mostly overlooked. Most girls look like they wearing everything from Forever 21 in one laced-color blocked-stilletoed outfit. Yet, these are probably the same schools that are asking to have principal approved dresses, which can be confusing. How do you go all year dressing in a way in which you express your individuality (teenagers) yet the night that you dream of the most you are told you can’t? Schools cant do this half assedly.

    I understand the argument of having teenagers dress more appropriately as it is a school sponsored event and they represent the school, however, how do you enforce this when all year you do nothing? I believe teenagers should dress appropriately to both daily school and prom, and before anybody whines about this…how else do you hold a job, provided that you are not a stripper or a blogger that blogs from home? There is always a dress code or uniform to almost anything. Then you go to the club/bar/party/comicon and dress as you please. However this club/bar/party/comicon is not funded by the same job that gives you a dress code. In a way…think about how you would dress to a company party, yes its a party but you don’t go in your low cut sequined/banded dress with your sky high heels.
    Just as we adults have a solution to where you wear what expresses our individuality (clubs, bars..) so do teenagers…and that is the after party.

    Lastly, I wish parents put more effort into their children’s educational causes as they do to what schools tell them regarding a girls princess gown.

  • CW

    These kinds of dress codes are only necessary because too many parents are failing to use good judgment in what they allow their daughters to wear to school dances. If parents had their daughters choose classy, elegant gowns rather than trashy-looking ones, schools wouldn’t have to institute a dress code.

  • Kel

    I went to a HS that also published strict “guidelines” for prom dresses…and then a friend of mine, who is Indian, made the choice to wear a sari. Forgive me for my ignorance on the official terms for the garment pieces, but the sari had essentially a sports bra-type top and then she was swathed in beautiful fabric. And she was turned away at the door because from the side, you could see her *gasp* nekkid torso. A bunch of her friends, including me, left in solidarity.

    Meanwhile, my younger brother, who graduated from the same HS, wore a Scottish kilt, and because he and his friends were teenagers, they went “authentic” sans underwear. And not that I have a problem with kilts or expect the door people to do an “underwear check” or anything, but there was a bit of hypocrisy there, I felt.

  • Brandy

    As an educator, I hate to break this to you–but, without a dress code some teens will show up in their underwear or an outfit a porn star would feel uncomfortable wearing. Teens do stupid things; we grownups have to have some rules in place to keep those stupid things from causing big time problems. Yes, I would have hated the dress code, too, actually no, I purposely skipped my prom because I wasn’t the school-spirit type; but, I would’ve sucked it up if I had wanted to go–just like you did. Sorry, hon, but life isn’t always fair and there are always rules(even if you don’t like).

  • Byron

    My prom was a year after yours, best online videogaming session of the year if I remember correctly. Only the annoying “popular” and usually wealthy kids who make most people’s lives miserable all year go to those things and actually have fun, you do realize that, yes?

    I’m sorry you were the type to cry for not being able to wear a pretty dress to a dance and I’m sorry that I would not trust someone who’d do that with the responsibility of not dressing herself in an inappropriate or plainly dumb way in order to fulfill whatever meaningless thing is exalted in a position of importance that specific week.

  • Rachel

    Any reason why girls can’t just wear whatever revealing clothing they wish at an event that is not a school function? It seems pretty black and white to me that at a school function, it is the school’s prerogative to determine what will/will not reflect poorly upon them. I don’t believe that requiring students not be dressed provocatively (especially when many are underage, even at a senior prom) is ridiculous.

    I was in the graduating class of 2006, so I would classify myself to be in the same generation as the author. I did not go to my senior prom (never appealed to me), but I have gone to many balls with my husband, who is in the military. My dresses have never been particularly modest (not going to waste my money on dresses that unnecessarily age me), but have never come close to having sky-high slits or visible torsos. Some women do attempt to where those to events, and it causes embarrassment for all involved. They (and their spouses) have to be specifically instructed by the chain of command that they need to choose another dress or leave. I am sure they find it unfair, but as is the case with proms, it is really up to the organization hosting the event to determine what the standards are. If the standards are unfair, vote with your dollar.

  • Daisy

    I went to a Catholic high school with a strict dress code. Every September, we’d have an assembly, and my (really quite awesome) principal would have these mannequins clad in every form of unacceptable clothing he could think of. I actually think he had a lot of fun dressing them :) Girls who came to class in tank tops *would* be told to cover up (althought it always seemed to be fine if we could see 4 inches of the guys’ boxers…)

    Even at that school, there were no rules about grad dresses. In fact, it’s just kind of expected that every year, at least one girl will “fall out” of hers at some point in the proceedings. Whatever. She pops herself back in and on we go. And yeah, some eyebrows are raised at a few dresses, but so what? It’s grad, not math class, and a plunging neckline is not exactly prancing around in lingerie.

    I emphatically do NOT think dress codes for school days should be the same as for grad. That would be retarded–find me one non-Mormon anywhere who has ever worn a grad dress with sleeves. I’m probably the most modest non-Mormon, non-Muslim you’ll ever find (I refuse to wear a swimsuit in public), but even my grad dress had spaghetti straps for goodness sakes.

  • Eileen

    Sounds like your school’s dress code might have been too strict, but that doesn’t mean all dress codes are a waste of time, especially if you know you’ve been having trouble with girls coming to school and being unable to bend over without showing off their pubic hair. Prom’s a school event, after all, full of mostly seventeen-year-olds (at my school, all juniors and seniors could attend, and often brought younger dates) – and while I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a stripper, a prom where I grew up could easily have been a room of seventeen-year-old strippers, with parents giving in because it is the prom, and that’s not really comfortable for the school.